A census speeds Atlanta toward racially neutral ground

Published 6:19 pm March 23, 2011

The home where Coretta Scott King raised her four children after the assassination of her husband is still neat and tidy. The yard even has a splash of begonias.

But opposite 234 Sunset Avenue, within what was once the most famous middle-class black neighborhood in America, is a row of frame houses sporting “for rent” signs outside nearly every other door.

And if you travel just a hundred yards north on Sunset, across Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, you enter — quite literally — a kind of no man’s land.

Tract 23 is ground zero in the depopulation of black Atlanta, a place where plywood windows are all the rage. In 2000, census takers counted roughly 2,700 people in the neighborhood. Last spring, the U.S. Census Bureau tallied 1,476. That’s a 45 percent decrease.

More than half the housing in Tract 23, in an area a stone’s throw from the Georgia World Congress Center, stands vacant.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2010 figures for growth-hungry Atlanta. Officials are still reeling at the news that — despite the boom of condo-building in the early part of the decade, and despite the Buckhead engine — the city’s population grew by a mere .4 percent over 2000.

The city’s official population now stands at 420,003 — a net gain of only 1,629 bodies in 10 years.

But such numbers scream of a status quo that isn’t there. Over that same period, 31,678 African-American residents fled the city — most of them living along and south of I-20. Meanwhile, the white population of Atlanta increased by 22,213.

A city that last month was thought to be 61 percent African-American is now, by the federal government’s count, 53 percent black. The home foreclosure crisis has sent Atlanta speeding toward racially neutral ground.

Surely, there are other reasons for black depopulation — the flood of ’09, an aging middle class, the end of massive public housing complexes, the lack of jobs, and the lure of the suburbs all come to mind.

But the results of a 2007 study by the Atlanta Regional Commission provides evidence that the home foreclosure crisis is the most likely villain. It, too, showed the Tract 23 region as the focal point for disaster.

“We meet the very definition of ‘distressed’,” said Ivory Lee Young, who represents Tract 23 and the rest of District 3 on the Atlanta City Council.

That trip to Britain last year by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, to discuss urban renewal with Prince Charles? Young was there, too. And the topic was how to revive Tract 23 and the surrounding area.

Young observed that, with a vanishing black middle class in the region, even the simplest economic wisdom is lost between generational cracks. Estate planning — the premeditated transfer of property from a deceased relative to a living one — is common on Atlanta’s north side. But not in Tract 23.

Such depopulation isn’t limited to Atlanta. This week, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that Detroit’s population had tanked by 25 percent over the last decade.

There’s every possibility that Atlanta will appeal the U.S. Census Bureau’s count of the city. The bureau’s own 2009 estimate had put the city’s population at 540,000. One number or the other is very wrong.

Because much federal and state money flows to cities based on population, an appeal would become important.

But if the numbers stick, the political implications for Atlanta could be profound.

For instance, Atlanta’s crime statistics would leap upward — not because of an actual increase in violence, but because the pool of potential victims has shrunk. It would be an immediate problem of perception for the city and its mayor.

Once district boundaries are redrawn, political clout on the Atlanta City Council and the school board is likely to shift north. And, most important, we now know that Reed’s slim, 714-vote victory over Mary Norwood in the 2009 race for mayor of Atlanta was no fluke.

Near racial parity in Atlanta could easily tempt a stronger opponent for Reed in 2013. You’ll remember that Shirley Franklin was nearly given a free pass for her second term. She faced only token opposition.

Significantly, the census reinforces the educated guess made by both Reed and Norwood in their bitter ’09 runoff: That the citywide contest would be decided not by African-American voters, but by white — often gay — voters on Atlanta’s east side.

District 5, which stretches deepest into DeKalb County, has experienced the most startling transformation in the last 10 years. More than 10,000 African-Americans left the district. And 7,012 new white residents moved in.

District 2, which includes Midtown and all of Downtown Atlanta, added 11,466 people in 10 years — more than any other city council district. Only 535 of the new residents were African-American.